The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh

Republicans who were facing a politically nightmarish predicament on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have gotten a reprieve from the most unlikely quarter: Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in the early 1980s.

Ford’s refusal to testify at a special hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday has played into the hands of Republicans, who argue that her story absent congressional testimony is essentially a partisan tactic to delay Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

Ford wants a full FBI investigation into her accusations. Democrats publicly back up her calls.

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Behind the scenes, however, some express dismay.

“I think this has been a mess from start to finish,” said one Democratic strategist who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. This source questioned why Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinTop Democrats demand security assessment of Trump properties Democrats warm to idea of studying reparations Hillicon Valley: Senators unload on Facebook cryptocurrency plan | Trump vows to 'take a look' at Google's ties to China | Google denies working with China's military | Tech execs on defensive at antitrust hearing | Bill would bar business with Huawei MORE (D-Calif.) kept her knowledge of Ford’s accusation to herself for so long, having first received a letter from her in July. (Feinstein has said it was because Ford was not willing to give up her own anonymity.) 

But the Democratic strategist added, “On top of that, then you have the situation of Democrats saying she would testify, then a couple of days later saying ‘but only if.’ That has not helped their cause.”

President TrumpDonald John TrumpCould Donald Trump and Boris Johnson be this generation's Reagan-Thatcher? Merkel backs Democratic congresswomen over Trump How China's currency manipulation cheats America on trade MORE has remained relatively muted in his comments on the matter. In brief remarks to reporters before boarding Marine One at the White House on Wednesday, Trump insisted that Kavanaugh had an “unblemished record” and that the situation was “a very tough thing for him and his family.” 

Trump also said, regarding Ford, that he “really would want to see what she has to say.”

A senior White House official reiterated to The Hill on Wednesday afternoon that Trump and his administration “fully support Judge Kavanaugh.”

With much of the Senate expected to vote along party lines on Kavanaugh, the focus has been on the handful of senators in each party who might be expected to buck their leadership. 

Among Republicans, Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsPoll: McConnell is most unpopular senator Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers struggle to understand Facebook's Libra project | EU hits Amazon with antitrust probe | New cybersecurity concerns over census | Robocall, election security bills head to House floor | Privacy questions over FaceApp Trump angry more Republicans haven't defended his tweets: report MORE (Maine), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiPoll: McConnell is most unpopular senator Overnight Defense: Highlights from Defense pick's confirmation hearing | Esper spars with Warren over ethics | Sidesteps questions on Mattis vs. Trump | Trump says he won't sell F-35s to Turkey Epstein charges show Congress must act to protect children from abuse MORE (Alaska) and Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeFlake urges Republicans to condemn 'vile and offensive' Trump tweets Flake responds to Trump, Jimmy Carter barbs: 'We need to stop trying to disqualify each other' Jeff Flake responds to Trump's 'greener pastures' dig on former GOP lawmakers MORE (Ariz.) are seen as the most likely to flip. 

Among Democrats, Sens. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyTrump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand GOP frets over nightmare scenario for Senate primaries McConnell's Democratic challenger McGrath backtracks on Kavanaugh comments MORE (Ind.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampTrump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand McConnell's Democratic challenger McGrath backtracks on Kavanaugh comments McConnell's Democratic challenger says she likely would have voted for Kavanaugh MORE (N.D.) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinPoll: McConnell is most unpopular senator Dems open to killing filibuster in next Congress Trump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand MORE (W.Va) are seen as the most likely to offer support for Kavanaugh — all three are running for reelection this year in states Trump won by wide margins in 2016, and all three backed his prior Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch.

When Ford first gave up her anonymity at the weekend, Collins in particular seemed to be wavering. She said that if Kavanaugh were shown to be lying in his emphatic denials of Ford’s charges, that would be “disqualifying.”

But since the judge’s accuser has equivocated about testifying, Collins has looked more likely to stay within the GOP fold. 

On Wednesday, she told a radio station in her home state, WVOM, that it would be “unfair” if Ford did not testify before the committee.

“If she refuses to testify, it makes it look like this is a big political stunt,” said GOP strategist and former leadership aide John Feehery, who is also a columnist for The Hill. 

Feehery said that, for figures like Collins and Murkowski, “it’s a little too cute by half. They are trying to be sympathetic to Ford, but she has to be willing to testify. You can’t make allegations from 30 years ago and then not be able to stand up to scrutiny.”

The Democratic strategist lamented what was, from his party’s view, a loss of leverage and momentum.

“What you saw in the beginning was Republicans like Flake, Collins, Murkowski starting to buckle in light of these allegations. Now you are seeing them start to coalesce. It plays right into the Republican narrative that this is all a delaying tactic.”

Still, Democratic leaders in the Senate are remaining four-square behind Ford in their public comments. 

On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTop Democrats demand security assessment of Trump properties Lawmakers pay tribute to late Justice Stevens Trump administration denies temporary immigrant status to Venezuelans in US MORE (D-N.Y.) released a statement in which he said, “I strongly support Dr. Ford’s call for an FBI investigation before a hearing is held. An immediate FBI investigation is not only consistent with precedent, it is also quite clearly the right thing to do.”

Some Democratic operatives take a more philosophical view, arguing that it was always a long-odds bet that they could stop Kavanaugh given the math in the Senate, where Republicans hold a 51-49 majority.

Tad Devine, a senior adviser to Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden leads, Warren and Sanders tied for second in new poll Analysis: Harris, Buttigieg and Trump lead among California donations The Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants MORE’s (I-Vt.) 2016 presidential bid but speaking in a personal capacity, said that the only chance to stop Kavanaugh was if Ford testified. 

But he stressed that many liberal activists are sympathetic to the predicament in which she finds herself. Ford only went public when it became likely her identity would be uncovered by the media, she has said. She is also reported to have received death threats and to have left her home while the furor continues.

“The Republicans are going to rush this through any possible way they can. The only way to stop it would be for her to testify publicly,” Devine said.

But he added: “That’s the politics. But I don’t think anybody’s going to be critical of a victim of sexual abuse deciding she doesn’t want to go into the lion’s den of Republican senators, if that turns out to be her decision.”

Republicans, meanwhile, who had been on the back foot as recently as 24 hours ago, now believe the controversy might even rebound to their advantage.

Barry Bennett, a senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign, argued that the last-minute furor could ultimately energize Republican voters.

Referring to Ford’s allegations, he said of GOP supporters, “They see it exactly the way I described it: as a purely political play.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.